Alongside flying and diving, driving (fast) is one of the most fundamental and seemingly endless sources of inspiration for watchmakers. Call them automotive, motorsport or racing watches, car enthusiasts are spoiled for wristwear options, both current and vintage. There are only a handful, however, that have become iconic.
Those that have attained that rarified i-word status, you might notice, tend to have some common features such as chronographs and a motor-racing connection (not all automotive-themed watches are racing watches). Chronographs were especially pertinent to racing right around a time that watch design and technology reached something of a golden age. Those '60s and '70s looks combined with the adventure of speed continue to enthrall watch fans today.
Paired with a tachymeter scale, chronographs were used to measure speed in auto racing— and the sporty look has become an archetype of watch design despite that almost nobody actually uses a tachymeter anymore. The following watches have influenced modern sport watch design in a number of ways and, though they're not the only great automotive-themed watches out there, they define the genre today.
Year Introduced: 1963
Before getting into the Carrera, a word on Heuer: it kind of owns the racing chronograph space. You'll see that the brand (now prefixed TAG) has multiple icons on this list — and even more (some omitted for the sake of avoiding Heuer overload).
Named for the short-lived Carrera Panamericana race, the Carrera's sporty and yet restrained design is no doubt part of its enduring appeal. Marketing savvy helped then company CEO (and founder's grandson) Jack Heuer get the Heuer name entrenched in the racing scene of the 1960s and '70s — and Heuer chronographs on the wrists of iconic drivers. Apparently designed for "gentleman drivers" and marked by legibility and its strong, angular lugs, the collection has taken many forms over the years but it's the original, down-to-earth design that's iconic.
Year Introduced: 1969
Even Jack Heuer seems surprised that this oddball design has been so enduring. You can thank cinematic star power for that, as Steve McQueen is famously shown playing a race car driver with this square hunk of metal strapped to his wrist in the 1971 film Le Mans. Also taking its name from a famous race, the Heuer Monaco is special for other reasons, as well, not least of which is that it featured one of the first automatic chronograph movements, the Calibre 11.
Year Introduced: 1933
The Autavia's defining feature is its rotating bezel which makes it feel especially sporty. Some versions featured tachymeter scales, but others had 60-minute (or even 12-hour) scales, making them aesthetically feel a little closer to the likes of a dive or pilot's watch. The Autavia name, in fact, comes from combining the words automobile and aviation, and although this is a chronograph made with versatility in mind, the Autavia is thought to be the Heuer chronograph most worn by actual professional drivers. The name dates to 1933, and the collection has taken many forms, but the most iconic models (such as the Viceroy-style model shown above) are from the 1960s and '70s.
Porsche Design Chronograph 1
Year Introduced: 1972
The Porsche Design Chronograph 1 one is one of those watches that has multiple claims to fame. It has one of the most legitimate connections to cars and racing, as it was designed by an offshoot of automaker Porsche and specifically by the man who created the famous 911 car, Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche. It was the new company's first product, and it was also the first watch to feature an all-black case coating, decades before the style permeated the watch space as it currently does. Finally, it was an early (though not the first) watch to be produced in titanium when it partnered with IWC in 1980.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
Year Introduced: 1963
While Rolex's entrant lost out to the Omega Speedmaster to become the Moonwatch, it's gone on to be the brand's dedicated motorsport watch — and, of course, one of the most hyped and iconic watches of all time. Much of the Daytona's celebrity is owed to it being prominently worn by actor Paul Newman, with its fame further fueled by record-setting auction prices. Whether it's the "Paul Newman" Daytona with its very '60s design details or the most current version — any is considered iconic.
Year Introduced: 1957
Yes, it's the watch astronauts took to space and therefore an iconic pilot's watch — but just look at the name: the Speedmaster was obviously designed as a racing watch. And, of course, it's just plain one of the most iconic watches of all time, period. That tachymeter bezel says octane all over it, and although the Moonwatch remains the one of the most recognizable watches in the world, other versions (such as those specifically in the Racing series) are even more motorsporty.
Year Introduced: 1936
The Universal Geneve Compax is perhaps not on the same level of iconic as those above, but it has a certain status among collectors. The now-defunct brand itself is celebrated, first of all, and this is its racing chronograph. For vintage enthusiasts, the Compax known for and nicknamed after model (and wife of an F1 driver) Nina Rindt is the most notable. Its "panda dial," the provenance of the watchmaker and a sporty vibe place it alongside some of the most sought-after vintage chronographs.
Tudor Oysterdate Chronograph "Montecarlo"
Year Introduced: 1971
Like the Universal above, the Tudor Montecarlo is more of a collector favorite than an outright icon, but it represents the funky side of '70s racing watches well. Its "Montecarlo" moniker is a nickname bestowed by enthusiasts for its color scheme recalling a roulette wheel, and while Tudor's relationship to Rolex invites comparison to the Daytona, it's got a character all its own.